Once Jon Merrill found out he was playing left wing on the fourth line for the Golden Knights against Philadelphia on Thursday, the defenseman went to veteran Paul Stastny for advice.
His first question was, “What do we do in the neutral zone?”
Stastny explained to Merrill his responsibility when he’s defending the middle, which was to pick up the offensive player in the center of the ice.
That was followed by what to do if Merrill was on the side closest to the boards.
“When in doubt, just get aggressive,” Stastny told him. “The last thing you want to do is be a forward and act like a defenseman and start skating backward, because you have a tendency to back off so you can see everything. When you’re playing with (Ryan Reaves) and (Nicolas Roy), the harder you go the better because you can just (feed) off those guys.”
Merrill followed his teammate’s suggestions and collected his first goal in a 5-4 victory over the Flyers at T-Mobile Arena.
He skated with the forwards during Friday’s practice at City National Arena, leaving the door ever so slightly open that he could be needed up front again Saturday when the Knights host the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues at T-Mobile Arena.
Jonathan Marchessault participated in practice but remains day to day with a lower-body injury and is considered a game-time decision Saturday. Also, coach Gerard Gallant said right wing Ryan Reaves has a minor illness and is a game-time decision.
Tomas Nosek, who missed Thursday’s game after the birth of his son, will be available to play against the Blues, according to Gallant.
“He might stay there the rest of the year,” Gallant said of Merrill. “It’s good to see a guy step in like that and take advantage of an opportunity.
“I think that was outstanding last night, especially the reaction from our bench when he scored. Nate Schmidt was jumping around like a little 4-year-old. It was perfect, and the guys were excited.”
Played forward 13 years ago
Merrill guessed that he last skated at forward 13 years ago in the United States Hockey League with the U.S. Development Team, though he first appeared for the national program in 2008-09, according to his Team USA profile online.
The move from defense to forward is easier than vice versa, according to Knights right wing Reilly Smith, who trained this past summer with his brother Brendan as he prepared to make the transition from defenseman to winger with the New York Rangers.
“When you’re a defenseman and you start to play forward, it’s just making smart plays on the walls with the puck in the defensive zone,” Smith said. “I think Jonny did a great job being able to shelter the puck a couple times and just make some good clears.”
On his first shift, Merrill stood in front of the net trying to tip a Deryk Engelland slap shot and was nearly hit in the head. Soon after, he gave the Knights a 3-1 advantage at 11:27 of the first period.
After battling for the puck along the left-wing wall, Merrill headed to the net, fell down, got up and was left alone in front to collect the rebound from Roy’s wraparound attempt.
He deftly shifted the puck to his backhand and tucked the puck around Flyers goaltender Carter Hart.
Merrill lifted his right leg in the air and pumped both fists to celebrate before being mobbed by teammates. He was shown looking at the replay on the video scoreboard and cracked that he was trying to catch his breath because of the extra skating from playing forward.
“How about that goal? He looked natural,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “It was pretty cool to see him get one. It was pretty fun being out there when he got it.”
Merrill finished with 9:11 of ice time and three shot attempts. Rookie defenseman Nic Hague is now the only player on the Knights’ roster without a goal.
“There’s definitely times when you’re in a spot that’s unfamiliar and it feels a little weird,” Merrill said. “But it’s just so much fun to play hockey, and I think instincts just kind of kicked in after a while.”
Who: Blues at Golden Knights
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: T-Mobile Arena
TV: AT&T Sports Net (Cox 313/1313, DirecTV 684, CenturyLink 760/1760, U-verse 757/1757, Dish 414/5414)
Radio: KRLV (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)
Line: Knights -140; total 5½ (under -110)